I spoke in this week’s Westminster Hall debate on TV licences, highlighting the experience of a veteran in Newport East who is set to lose his free TV licence under the loss of the existing concession scheme for over 75s, and calling on the Government to take back control of a social benefit that should have never have been outsourced.
The Westminster Hall debate followed a public petition – which has accrued over 170,000 signatures – calling on the UK Government to restore TV licences for the over-75s. The decision to link the licence concession for over-75s to pension credit followed the Government’s decision to outsource responsibility for TV licences to the BBC, despite the 2017 Conservative Manifesto promises to “maintain all other pensioner benefits, including TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament.” 3,770 households in Newport East are set to lose their licences under the changes, and across the wider Gwent region that rises to 23,450 households, with a total annual cost across all households of over £567,000.
My contribution to the debate is copied in full below:
I too will speak in support of the petition for the restoration of TV licences for the over-75s. Like many other hon. Members, I was deeply concerned by the announcement that the TV licence concessions for the over-75s would now be linked to pension credit. As many hon. Members have said, this is a problem of the Government’s own making. Ministers cannot hide behind the BBC, because it was their decision to outsource responsibility for TV licences, despite the manifesto pledge to maintain the benefit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) said, they have been devolving the blame.
Some 3,770 households in Newport East are set to lose their licences under the changes, and across the wider Gwent region that rises to 23,450 households, with a total annual cost across all households of over £567,000. As other hon. Members have said, TV licences are an important benefit for older people, who suffer disproportionately from isolation and loneliness. As the excellent Age Cymru has said, for millions of over-75s the TV is not just the box in the corner; it is their constant companion, their window on the world and their main form of company.
TV is also an essential source of information for people who are not online, and it plays a crucial role in their ability to be an active citizen in our democracy. Research from Age Cymru shows that only 29% of over-75s in Wales use the internet. The shift to information being online has already made it more difficult for older people to keep informed and to access key services. Removing the entitlement to a free TV licence would add substantially to these difficulties.
Linking the concession to pension credit is also hugely problematic. Estimates by the Department for Work and Pensions suggest that two in every five people eligible for pension credit are not claiming the benefit. In Newport East alone that is almost £5 million of unclaimed pension credit that is not reaching the people who need it each year. Until the Government act to ensure that everyone who is entitled to pension credit receives it, a huge number of older people risk losing out on two benefits at once if the TV licence proposals go ahead. That is the problem with it not being universal.
As Age Cymru has highlighted, there are many reasons why older people do not claim pension credit: they may not know the benefit exists; they may feel they are not entitled to any help; they may be put off by the process of claiming; they may struggle on alone, assuming that others are worse off than them; or they be living with dementia, as other hon. Members have mentioned. In practical terms, there are serious questions to ask about how the BBC will ensure that people with dementia will be able to pay their licence fee and, if they do not, how non-payment will be enforced. It does not bear thinking about. Age Cymru has said that there may be 850,000 people affected by that.
I want to finish by citing an example from my constituency. In the week that the licence fee proposals were outlined, candidates in the Conservative leadership election began to outline their plans to cut taxes for the wealthiest in society. Days later I was contacted by the neighbour of an 86-year-old armed forces veteran in Newport who is set to lose his TV licence under the new proposal. I know that Defence Ministers are concerned about that. The contrast underlines and amplifies the fact that the Conservative party has a serious question to answer about where its priorities lie and the kind of country it wants us to live in. I echo the calls from campaigners and charities such as Age Cymru for the UK Government to take back the funding and administration fee for the free TV licence scheme and let the BBC focus on its job of being a brilliant national broadcaster. TV licences are a social benefit that should not have been outsourced.